SNOWFALL ON MARS by Branden Frankel

“Although the terrain is a rusted red-orange, it is gashed at random internals with outcroppings of faded grey rock.  In the distance are snow-topped hills.  There are no plants.  There are no animals.  Just soil and rock and the train track, exploding out from beneath the train and into the hazy distance as though the track was as desperate to return to civilization as the outcasts transported upon it.

Out of the steel grey and cloudless sky, snowflakes drift gently to the ground…The snow I’m watching fall now is the result of a failed project undertaken by a failed people.  The first colonists came to Mars sixty years ago.  Forty years later, they tried dto terraform the planet by pumping chemicals into the air.  The intent was to create a breathable atmosphere.  All they created was acidic rain and toxic snow that served to break their impressive machines down into the same rust red dust that is the beginning, middle, and end of this place.”

Yep, Gentle Readers, it is that time again.  Time for another Mars book, because I AM the most Mars obsessed person you know. And let me say right from Jump Street that I loved this book.  It doesn’t have the detailed and imaginative science or the painfully serious politics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the fun goofiness of Kage Baker, the woo-woo factor of finding ruins on Mars of Dylan James Quarles, or the ultra reality of Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian.  This book about Mars, my darlings, has SNOW!  Hot damn!

From the hundreds of thousands of colonists who came to Mars and procreated there, spread over a number of settlements, the population is down to about 500, huddled together in one section of New Houston, and they are barely keeping body and soul together, because you need high tech folks to keep things running, food growing and processing, etc.  They are down to only a handful who seem to be using my basic toolbox – hammer, screwdriver and duct tape.  Twenty years ago, Earth blew itself up —  mid-sentence during a broadcast.  This triggered nuclear winter on Earth, and whelp,  there goes your fallback position if you didn’t like life on Mars, and there goes your grocery delivery.  This event on Earth triggered on Mars mass suicides, and days of unspeakable violence and killings.  Those who were left were left to make do with damaged infrastructure and facilities.  The terreforming project after being seen to be a total failure, was shut down.  Life became constricted and bleak.

As we live through the days with our first person narrator, I am reminded of scenes of Soviet-era Russia, grim, bleak, sad.  One day after another, one foot after another, until one day he is awakened by a friend to tell him that the head engineer has been murdered in his lab over night.  The game is on to find the killer, and the reason for the murder.  In that process, we find there is an even larger problem.  A self-proclaimed cult leader has plans to blow up what remains of the planet’s population because of his own overheated sense of guilt and doom, and it is up to our narrator and friends to track him down and foil the dastardly plot.

Fun fact:  the food for the planet is manufactured in an underground facility.  At one time, this ‘substance’ was known as “sustainability rations”.  It was to hold colonists over in the event that a shipment from Earth was delayed.  It was never mean to be eaten as breakfast, lunch and dinner for a lifetime.  These rations are created by distilling the byproduct of a genetically engineered fungus brought from Earth years ago.  The fungus metabolizes Martian soil and creates a substance that can support human life.  In other words, they feed dirt to fungus and eat its shit.

A quote or two, to whet your appetite:

About a scammer,

You are aware that you can’t trust Wang, right?  You are aware that Wang has no scruples?  That he’d sell his own mother into slavery?  Assuming, of course, that he was born rather than spontaneously generated out of ambient spite.

About his dream for a life where there might be real food:

It doesn’t have to be the Land of Milk and Honey.  The Land of Beer and Cheeseburgers would suit me just fine.

So we have a mystery and a thriller all rolled up together, but the most interesting thing about this was the way we are forced to examine the ideas of identity, place, and I suppose grit and intrepidness.  Our narrator, who was brought to the planet by his parents at age 6, and thus has memories of Earth,and plans for returning there, views his future much differently than those young people who were born on Mars, for whom Earth is just a word, and for whom its destruction is essentially meaningless.  Our narrator views the future as ‘less than’, while the young people, having nothing to compare it to, simply view it as ‘future’.

Snow on Mars.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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